Okay, we’re going to do something really different today from what I usually do, because I think it is an important piece of history that nobody really knows. But it’s not the history of a person or a place or an event….it’s the history of a word.
We’re talking about the history of the singular pronouns they(/them/their).
Now, another thing that I’m going to do that is different today is I’m going to give you a source for all of the information I’m about to impart. I don’t usually do that because this is a hobby, not a college dissertation. I really don’t want it to feel like work, y’know? Yes, that makes all of this amateur, and I’m generally okay with that. But you know who’s not amateur? The Oxford English Dictionary. So, if you think you know the English language better than the Oxford English Dictionary, please feel free to argue. With them. (I am also dipping into the Merriam-Webster dictionary and some literary analyses.)
Anyways, let’s talk history. The first time the singular “they” appears in written language was in 1375 in the story William and the Wolf, the English translation of the French Guillaume de Palerme. Now, I’ll grant you, we know next to nothing about the person who translated it and there’s no dictionaries at this point in history, let alone standardized spelling. Technically, we’re still speaking Middle English and not Modern English for another 95 years. In fact, in 1375 we were still using some words that haven’t been in common usage for centuries, like “thou.”
Right. “Thou” the singular form of “you” because “you” was a plural pronoun. But in the mid-17th century we changed it so that “you” could mean any number of people — one, two, a dozen, any number. We’ve been happily using context clues to figure out the number of people “you” was referring to for like the past 400 years. At which time, for the record, we were very much using modern English.
But I digress and now I’ve skipped ahead — past an awful lot of very respectable examples. Geoffrey Chaucer used it in “The Pardoner’s Prologue” in The Canterbury Tales. Singular “they” is even in the King James Version of the Bible — check Philippians 2:3. And I wouldn’t dream of ignoring the writings of the Bard, William Shakespeare himself. He used singular “they” kind of a lot, actually. He would even use the singular “they” when the gender of the subject is known. For one example, in Hamlet, he wrote:
“‘Tis meet that some more audience than a mother— Since nature makes them partial—should o’erhear”
William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 3 Scene 3
Now I think most of us would agree that Shakespeare had a good handle on the English language but it’s certainly true he made up hundreds of words (like “amazement”), and in his time — even though we were using (early) modern English — we still didn’t really have things like dictionaries or standardized spelling. So, okay, maybe Shakespeare isn’t the best judge on what’s correct.
So we’ll skip ahead to 1755 when A Dictionary of the English Language by Samuel Johnson was published, giving us standardized spelling and moving us firmly into Modern English. (Until the Oxford English Dictionary came about in 1857, Johnson’s dictionary was basically the final word on the English language.) Johnson’s dictionary is actually online and while it does define “they” as plural, interestingly enough it provides in its definition an example of its use as a singular pronoun (from Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, no less!)
Must now confess, if they have any goodness
The trial just and noble.”
This is why we needed an OED to step up and clarify things, you know?
But what is really clear is that the singular “they” remained in common use, even among the most noted authors of the English language. Jane Austen uses the singular “they” 109 times across her various works. As did numerous other authors — just for a handful examples, you can find it used in Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819), Lord Byron‘s Werner, or The Inheritance: A Tragedy (1822) Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickelby (1839), Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847), Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868), Mark Twain’s A Tramp Abroad (1880), Jack London’s Martin Eden (1909), Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927), George Orwell’s 1984 (1949), C.S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952), and Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed (1974). There’s an even longer list of examples, which includes excerpts, over at UPenn’s Language Log if you’re interested.
So with all of this, why did it become commonplace for us to say that “they” is plural if that’s never been true in practice? Well, to be quite frank, because of sexism. 1795 is the first time that anyone begins arguing that pronouns for people needed to be “sex definite” and of course, that meant if you didn’t know the sex you should be using “he” as that was the superior sex. I’m not kidding or exaggerating here, the entire basis for the argument hinged on grammar rules written by William Lily as he was teaching Latin students in 1567. The rule?
“The Masculine Gender is more worthy than the Feminine, and the Feminine more worthy than the Neuter.”
Aside from that seeming pretty ridiculous even in Latin, this rule is about word classification and not actual people’s genders. But in 1795, some “grammar experts” decided it should apply to English pronouns for people.
That idea didn’t last long without being challenged. It was being pointed out pretty quickly that always using “he” was erasing women from roles they often filled. Samuel Coleridge was arguing for using “it” instead as early as 1808. “It” of course is fairly dehumanizing, as that’s a pronoun typically used for objects, and that was being said pretty much immediately after Coleridge made his suggestion. That landed us with “he or she,” which has also been pretty universally decried as sounding clunky and awkward. And so the academics and grammarians have argued on and on for more than 200 years. Pretty much the entire time this discussion has been going on, people have been trying to create new gender neutral pronouns as well — “ou” being the first, appearing in the 1790s, with “ze” and “zir” being much more recent attempts. It’s an admirable idea, but none have caught on yet. Meanwhile even the most celebrated of authors continued using the singular “they” so you kind of have to wonder why this has been argued so long. The OED had realized this was kind of a pointless discussion by at least 1998, when they officially included a singular definition of “they” in that year’s New OxfordDictionary of English.
The point is, it’s not new to use singular “they.” The idea of “they” being a singular pronoun predates any argument that it can’t be singular by centuries. And the most celebrated and respected users of the English language have continuously ignored that argument. The only thing that’s “new” is that we have so many people who don’t feel like they fit into the gender binary but do feel supported enough and free enough to tell us that. That’s a really great change, and even though that is something that probably is worth changing our language over….we don’t even need to.
So, last time we talked about the Golden Age of Comics and the subsequent Silver Age of Comics — the era ruled over by the Comics Code Authority. When the Code loosened up in 1971, the world of comic books entered a new era: the Bronze Age of Comics. (I don’t know who decided that all these periods needed to be named like this, but…it’s getting to be a bit much, isn’t it?) The Code was still not ready for LGBTQ+ people to appear in the pages of comic books…but the people making underground comics did not care. They were ready to go for it — and queer artists, emboldened by the growing gay rights movement — were ready to push the envelope even farther.
In October of 1971, artist Rand Holmes tackled the homophobia in the book Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) — which we will some day talk about in greater detail some day when I tackle the sordid history of conversion therapy — stating that it sets psychiatry back by 50 years, and going so far as to have the lead character of his “The Continuing Adventures of Harold Hedd” engage in explicit oral sex with another man before blatantly calling out the book’s author David Reuben M.D. by saying “you are rilly fucked up man.” I’m not sure if word ever got back to David Reuben but the whole thing was a pretty fantastic call out.
The following year, the feminist comic book Wimmens Comix began its run — being published initially by Last Gasp though it would change hands over the years. As if to exemplify how much they did not care about the status quo, the first issue included a story called “Sandy Comes Out” by Trina Robbins — featuring the first openly lesbian character in comics. Despite breaking new ground, the comic was not especially well received by the LGBTQ+ community — in part because Trina Robbins is a straight woman, but mainly because it simplified the complexities of coming out. And so in 1974, Mary Wings entered the world of underground comix by self-publishing the entirely lesbian-focused book Come Out Comix.
1974 was also the year that Steve Glanzman’s story “Toro” was published — one of his U.S.S. Stevens stories that were printed in Our Fighting Forces by DC. Toro is a tragic story — and ostensibly a true on (as all of Glanzman’s war comics are believed to be), but there’s little question that the character it is about is not a straight man. Being published by a mainstream publisher, this was toeing the line of what the Code would allow. It managed to eke out a Code seal by never really going farther than referring to the character as a “fairy” in a way that might have implied that he was magic rather than gay.
Though 1975 was something of a quiet year — with the exception of a lesbian being introduced in the second issue of Further Fattening Adventures of Pudge, Girl Blimp by Lee Marrs, and the character Pudge getting almost arrested at a gay rights rally. Howver, 1976 was a banner year for gay comics. It kicked off in February with the first recurring openly gay character in mainstream comics — comic strips, that is — when Garry Trudeau introduced the character of Andy Lippincott to his daily strip Doonesbury.
That same year Howard Cruse had the continuing character of Headrack come out in the second issue of Barefootz Funnies. Headrack, while not the central character, was the best friend of the central character and so was a continuous presence in the series. Which meant, officially, the first gay recurring character had appeared in comic strip and comic book format. Pretty important, but there was more ahead for 1976. Roberta Gregory — one of the contributors to Wimmen’s Comix — began self-publishing her own work, centered around lesbian characters, called Dynamite Damsels and Larry Fuller put together an anthology series featuring all gay male characters called Gay Heart Throbs. All of these, of course, were underground comic that did not need to meet the Code’s standards and intentionally did not. So, despite the fact that 1976 was a pretty impressive, groundbreaking year….most of the United States only knew about Andy Lippincott.
In 1977, Gerard Donelan (often just called “Donelan”) — a fan of Joe Johnson‘s cartoons — submitted work to The Advocate, disappointed that they weren’t continuing to run Johnson’s work. After they ran his first cartoon, they hired him to create a regular strip called “It’s a Gay Life” — which would run for 15 years. This, perhaps, was the inspiration Rupert Kinnard needed to begin creating “Cathartic Comics” for Cornell College’s student newspaper, which featured the Brown Bomber and Diva Touché Flambé — the first gay and lesbian (respectively) black characters in comics. This is often overlooked, because there’s no actual crime fighting or supervillains in the strips, but Brown Bomber is also the first gay superhero — he transforms into his superheroic identity through the power of magic hiccups. Of course.
The following year, a book of gay cartoons from the magazine Christopher Street was released. It was advertised as “The World’s First Gay Cartoon Book!” which, as we’ve seen, was not strictly speaking true. But I’m including it in this article primarily because the title of the book makes me laugh every time I see it: And God Bless Uncle Harry and His Roommate Jack Who We’re Not Supposed to Talk About. Other gay magazines, such as In Touch For Men would also soon release their own cartoon collections in 1978. But without the funny titles.
Meanwhile, still in 1978, DC was working hard to counteract various rumors about some of their characters being gay. To that end, they introduced a woman named Shvaughn Erin — an officer of the Science Police, very capable woman — to be the love interest of Element Lad who had been continuously subjected to rumors of being gay since his creation. Despite this, the rumors persisted. It’s like the people at DC had never heard of a beard before.
Anyways, with queer cartoonists taking the lead in telling queer stories with underground comix, Denis Kitchen decided his publishing company, Kitchen Sink Press, could help get those stories out there even more. In 1979, he asked Howard Cruse to help him put together Gay Comix — an anthology series exclusively featuring LGBTQ+ stories by openly LGBTQ+ artists. Gay Comix would run for 26 issues, ending its run in 1998. It would go on to feature Jerry Mills‘ series “Poppers,” and so many others I could probably write a whole article just on it.
By 1980, the Code itself had lost much of its sway. Major publishers were starting to get books sold at comic book stores without with the CCA seal, simply by marketing them as “for mature audiences”, and the CCA was putting its stamp on books that would never have been allowed before. Eclipse Comics published the graphic novel Detectives Inc.: A Remembrance of Threatening Green (by Don McGregor), which featured lesbian characters and Stewart the Rat (by Steve Gerber) which also featured a little bit of queer content. Even Marvel, I guess, tried to dabble in queer content. Kind of. It was a deeply offensive story (especially if its your first time having gay men in a story) called “A Personal Hell” from Hulk! #23, written by Jim Shooter. Again, deeply offensive, so we’re going to breeze on past it. I wish we could pretend it never happened but….we’re not done with Jim Shooter yet.
Kitchen Sink Press and Eclipse Comics both, apparently, discovered they could make money from unabashedly presenting queer characters. In 1981, Kitchen Sink Press introduced a recurring strip called “Omaha, the Cat Dancer” in its anthology series Bizarre Sex. Several characters engaged in homosexual activities throughout the course of the strip, but it kicked off with the openly bisexual character Shelley Hine in that very first strip.
Also in 1982, Marvel comics tried the whole “gay characters” thing again, with much more success. They introduced the character Arnie Roth, who had been friends with Steve Rogers before he became a superhero, defending him from neighborhood bullies. Arnie ran into Captain America, revealing that he had long ago guessed Cap’s secret identity. Captain America and Arnie set off on an adventure to rescue Arnie’s “roommate” Michael Bech. When they succeed and Arnie and Michael are reunited, Captain America figures out pretty quickly that they’re actually a couple. It’s a sweet little story, and gives Arnie Roth the distinction of being Marvel’s first gay character. And, because he’s a minor character and he’s not shown kissing, and because Michael is consistently called his “roommate”…he also has the distinction of being the first gay character to have his story told with a CCA seal of approval. (Marvel made a recent announcement regarding Captain America while I was researching this…which I found particularly interesting because of this…but that’s for the end of this series. If I talked about it while it was news, it wouldn’t be history, right?)
DC began publishing stories without the CCA seal — marketing them as being for “mature readers.” These included Camelot 3000, in which the Knights of the Round Table are reincarnated in the year 3000 AD. The knight Sir Tristan, when his memories awaken, finds he has been reincarnated in the body of a woman named Amber. Tristan gets more upset when he discovers Isolde, his great love, has also been reincarnated…also as a woman. Isolde helps Tristan come to terms with the situation and the two become lovers again. Despite the fact that Tristan has kind of medieval attitudes about sex, gender, and sexuality (which is kind of understandable since Tristan is from that time period) it’s actually like pretty good transgender representation. A gigantic leap forward since the last major transgender representation in comics was decades earlier and was….oh right….a bored guy on Mars.
Also in 1982, something new and important happened very quietly in the underground comix scene. Gay Comix #3 incuded a story entitled “I’m Me!” by David Kottler appeared, his only credited work in comics of any kind, at least under that name (as far as I’ve found). The story is a brief one about his transition. David seems to have been the first openly transgender comic creator and the first to tell a story about an actually transgender person (not some wacky sci-fi/fantasy genderbending hijinks) in that format.
Not to be outdone, in December of that year, Eclipse Comics series SABRE by Don McGregor introduced two gay characters, named Deuces Wild and Summer Ice, who were presented as lovers basically as soon as they appeared. A year later, the same series featured the first gay kiss in mass-produced comics — by the same characters, unsurprisingly. Underground comix had, of course, had plenty of gay kisses by this point, but those were not mass produced by any definition. Eclipse Comics was operating somewhere between underground and mainstream — they were able to mass produce comics but, obviously, did not care at all about the Code. Their books would sell anyways.
1983 was also the year that Alison Bechdel began publishing her comic strip series “Dykes to Watch Out For” in the magazine Womannews. If Bechdel’s name sounds familiar, that’s either because you already know her work, you love the Broadway musical Fun Home, or because the Bechdel Test is widely used to sort of gauge the quality of female representation in pieces of media. The test — if you haven’t heard of it — is basically, are there two named female characters who speak about something other than a man. That test is named after her, despite her crediting her friend Liz Wallace for the idea, because it was first described in — you probably guessed this already — the strip “Dykes to Watch Out For.” (But not until 1985, at which point Bechdel was self-syndicating the strip.) The strip would run continuously until 2008, at which point Bechdel decided to retire it, except for occasional special ones like the “Postcards from the Edge” story she published in 2017 for the “Ides of Trump” campaign.
Bechdel was not the only queer artist putting out new, gay work in 1983, however. In the UK, David Shenton published his first graphic novel, Stanley and the Mask of Mystery. Howard Cruse, though still producing Gay Comix began publishing a strip called “Wendel” in issues of The Advocate, and the series “Jayson” by Jeff Krell began appearing in Philadelphia Gay News (it would later be published in Gay Comix and Meatmenas well.)
Also in 1983, was the first issue of Alpha Flight — a Marvel comic book series about a Canadian superhero team. They’d been introduced as enemies of the X-Men back in 1979, but now they were getting their own series. And one of their founding members was Northstar. Now, one of the problems with taking bad guys from a single comic book issue four years prior and making them stars of their own book series was….you had to make up backstories for them. Creator John Byrne was convinced that Northstar was a closeted Olympic athlete — and also secretly a superhero, and was determined to tell that story. Now, the Code and also executives at Marvel — primarily editor-in-chief Jim Shooter (I told you we weren’t done with him) — prevented him from telling it as plainly as he’d have liked. It’s been said that Shooter was determined to have “no gays in Marvel Comics.” The comics were full of hints about how Jean-Paul Beaubier (that’s Northstar’s secret identity) was too busy with Olympic training to be interested in girls, how he would ignore his throngs of female fans, etc. Like, it wasn’t spelled out but it was hard to miss. But outside of the pages of the comic, Byrne would tell pretty much anyone that Northstar was gay. As a result, Northstar is pretty widely considered to be the first gay superhero from a mainstream comic book publisher (despite not actually be out in the comic book).
But one thing Marvel did manage to do in this year without any concern about the Code was to use the word “gay” — meaning homosexual — for the first time in a mainstream comic book. It’s a subtle little thing — a bit of dialogue I’m sure many straight women will have lived through themselves. It appears in Fantastic Four #251, when the characters of Julie D’Angelo and Sharon Selleck are discussing their new friend Grey Landers (whom Julie is all about) right before Johnny Storm — the Human Torch — comes over to ask her out. They’re setting up a whole love……some sort of geometric shape….but, alas, a purely heterosexual one.
The next year, in Vigilante #5 DC introduced the freelance mercenaries Henry Cannon and Marschall Saber (or simple, Cannon and Saber). Although their being a gay couple was presented as like a minor detail that didn’t matter, probably to sneak it by the Code, really the whole plotline wouldn’t work if they were not. Despite the subtlety, they didn’t get this approved by the Code. The story is, basically, that a D.A. has arranged for them to go into witness protection together if they kill each other’s bosses. They do so, but before they can be entered into Witness Protection, they get attacked in their home by the Vigilante. In the ensuing fight, Cannon and Saber were actually winning until the fight was interrupted by the Electrocutioner. The story almost managed to get a CCA seal, primarily because the gay characters were villains but their relationship is actually pretty wholesome — they work as a team, they protect each other over anything else, and they support each other’s goals. There are good guy gay couples in the media now that don’t have relationships this healthy.
Marvel, meanwhile, revealed that their character Cloud was transgender…..uhm….kind of. You see, they introduced a plotline wherein Cloud was falling in love with Moondragon, one of her female teammates on the Defenders…..so she began shapeshifting into a man. This story did not get approved by the Code, but still managed to get sold in stores. Some stores, anyways. It would later turn out that Cloud was actually a nebula from space that had taken on human form, lost their memories, and become a superhero. The Marvel Database officially lists Cloud as “genderfluid” and, in this sense, that’s pretty literal. Still don’t think this storyline was quite up to par with the one in Camelot 3000 but that’s not up to me, is it?
There was a bit of a minor shakeup in the comic book world, as two new publishing companies were trying to make room for themselves in the industry. One of them was Megaton Comics — who we’ll follow up with later — and the other was First Comics. Among the various hurdles First Comics was dealing with was their own unwillingness to abide by the rules of the Code. For example, in Sable (vol 1) #15, the lead character Jon Sable assured Grey Adler, his love interest’s best friend, that he didn’t judge homosexuals. Grey would become a major recurring character, leading Sable into various adventures pertaining to issues facing the gay community.
Though Marvel and DC were just beginning to put their toes into the big LGBTQ+ representation pool, the underground comics scene was really getting the hang of it. 1984 was the year that Tim Barela debuted his strip “Leonard & Larry” in Gay Comix. The strip would later also be published in The Advocate and Frontiers— and it would run in Frontiers until 2002! The strip featured a wide variety of characters, all falling under the LGBTQ+ umbrella, and was praised for its depiction of queer families and for the fact that the characters in it aged realistically over the years.
By the end of 1984, there had been at least one queer character introduced in virtually every area of comics — there was still a long, long, long way to go between where we were then and where we are now (and where we still need to go!). And we’ll go over more of that journey in the exciting next episode!
Last June, as you may recall, I did a whole series on the Heroes of Stonewall. Obviously, it was a massive riot, I couldn’t cover everyone who was there in just a month. I left out someone incredibly important (several someones), and I can’t think of a better time to cover the story of another transgender person of color who heroically led us at the Stonewall Riots, and afterwards, than right now — when the Trump administration is attacking the healthcare rights of transgender people.
MissMajor Griffin-Gracy was born in Chicago on October 25, 1940 in the south side of Chicago at St. Luke’s Hospital. She was assigned to the male gender at birth. It didn’t last too long — while she was still fairly young, she discovered the drag ball scene and began participating regularly. She later explained that, without the terminology we have today existing, she did not realize that she and her peers were questioning their gender identities. But they were, and Miss Major was fairly open about it. Her parents attempted to curb this, but eventually just kicked her out.
Afterwards, she was homelessness — getting by as best she could through sex work and the occasional theft. She transitioned, using hormones she purchased on the black market — something that became a booming business following the very public transition of Christine Jorgensen. She briefly had a job as a secretary for the Mattachine Society, but even that didn’t last too long.
After a run in with the law, and a six month bout in a mental institution, Miss Major moved to New York City. She became a performer at the famous Jewel Box Revue, as well as the Cherries and the Powder Puff Revue. (As an aside, I’m definitely a 90’s kid because I definitely first thought that was “Powerpuff” but it isn’t.) During these years she experimented with a handful of names, but settled on the one her parents had given her: Major. She simply added the word “Miss” in front of it.
Although many of the gay bars would not let her in, Miss Major became a frequent customer at the Stonewall Inn — probably at least in part because of her and Stormé DeLarverie‘s shared association with the Jewel Box Revue. She was there on the night of June 27, 1969 and stayed late enough to be present when the police raided the bar. She participated in the rioting on that first night, until she spit in the face off one of the police officers — he responded by knocking her out. She awoke the next day in a prison cell. While she was in police custody, her jaw was broken.
After the riot, Miss Major was deeply changed by the murder of a Puerto Rican transgender friend of hers known as Puppy. Despite plenty of evidence, the police ruled the murder was a suicide. She realized that transgender women of New York could not depend on anyone but each other — she began to build a network so that they could help protect each other. This was especially true of sex workers, who started trying to get their “johns” to exit the cars so that all of the girls could see them — just in case a girl never came back from a job.
She was arrested in 1970 for burglary after a safe-breaking job went wrong, and spent four years at Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York. He had a great deal of respect for Miss Major, and her gender identity, and he talked to her about how she could help her community. She spent a good amount of time in solitary confinement — she was imprisoned with men, and every time a fight broke out between her and any other inmate, she was the one who was punished. She was paroled twice — but both times the parole was revoked when her parole officer reported her for deviant behavior (once was for adopting a more feminine appearance by shaving her face, and the second time was for “entering a deviant bar.”) While incarcerated, she communicated regularly with Frank “Big Black” Smith — who had been in charge of security at the Attica Correctional Facility Riots of 1971. When she was finally released in 1974, she took those lessons to heart.
In 1978, Miss Major’s long-time girlfriend gave birth to their son Christopher. Miss Major decided the life she’d built in New York was not one well-suited for raising a child, she secured sole custody of Christopher and moved to San Diego. She would eventually adopted three other boys — runaways she met at a park. This was the start of a growing chosen family that still rallies around Miss Major to this day. She started working at a food bank and attempted to help transgender people who were in prison or recovering from addiction, but as the AIDS epidemic began to ravage the queer community of California, Miss Major turned her attention to helping provide healthcare and performing funerals. The silver lining for the epidemic, Miss Major later recalled, was that many transgender people — especially women — were able to find legitimate, legal jobs for the first time, even if that job was the heartbreaking task of providing healthcare to doomed queer people no one else wanted to touch.
In the mid 90’s, Miss Major moved to San Francisco. She continued her HIV/AIDS activism, including serving with the Tenderloin AIDS Resource Center (TARC). As part of that organization, she ensured they had a refrigerator available so that homeless people could store food and medications at the center. She fought for them to acquire a washing machine and a dryer so homeless people in the community could do their laundry.
In 2003, Miss Major — who’s activism was returning more to its original focus on incarcerated transgender people — joined the newly founded Transgender Gender Variant Intersex Justice Project (TGI Justice Project), and became the Executive Director. In this position, she is one of an estimated five people in the United States that is working full time towards equal transgender rights in prison. She has testified about human rights violations towards transgender people in prisons before both the California State Assembly and the United Nations Human Rights Committee in Geneva. One particular focus of her activism is on the healthcare that transgender inmates receive — they are sometimes denied everything from hormones to routine medical examinations. But, as she notes, transgender inmates face abuse in almost every aspect of prison life, and are overrepresented in prison populations (where they are typically housed with the incorrect gender).
She has decried the gay rights movement for ignoring the plight of transgender people as they fought for equality — a sentiment that was shared deeply by Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson. (And frankly, shared by me too. It’s hard to argue with.) But Miss Major herself has continued to fight tirelessly for those the rest of society wanted to ignore. She’s known to have said: “Just because there’s this umbrella, LGBT, we’re all grouped together. But guess what? Someone poked a hole in the umbrella and the girls are still getting wet.”
And recently, although those sentiments still largely hold true, Miss Major herself has finally been getting attention for her decades of work. In 2014, Miss Major was made the Grand Marshall of the San Francisco Pride Parade. In 2015, the documentary MAJOR! was released, following Miss Major’s life as an activist.
More recently, in 2018 Miss Major has relocated from California to Little Rock, Arkansas. There, she has founded the Griffin-Gracy Historical Retreat and Educational Center — also known the House of GG. On July 4, 2019 Miss Major suffered a stroke — but survived and is recovering well enough that she has been engaged in Black Lives Matters protests within the past month according to her Instagram. If you want to help with her continued recovery or with her continued activisim for transgender and gender non-conforming people, a website has been set up for donations.
While articles about Miss Major’s life and activism are plentiful, they all have anecdotes of Miss Major saving lives by simply being there, lending an ear, or offering advice and a good book. It’s little wonder so many have rallied around her, now often calling her “Mama Major” or “Grandma Major.” Janet Mock, a writer, director, and producer — one of the creators of the TV show Pose, once said, “Without Miss Major’s contributions and work, I would not exist.” There are countless transgender people in this country who say the same. That’s a tremendous legacy, but when asked what she hoped her legacy would be in a 2018 interview she said: “If ain’t right, fucking fix it, whatever it takes.”
And if that’s not a mantra for the whole world to adopt, I don’t know what is.
(PS, Miss Major also has a Facebook page you should totally follow.)
As I’m sure you all know, if you’ve been reading this site for a while, there’s alotofriots in queer history. Today, I’m going to tackle another — the White Night Riots of May 21, 1979.
I do have to start with a little backstory, so let’s rewind a bit. There’s a whole long very gay history going back to the founding of San Francisco but I’m not going to go back there (today, anyways) — suffice it to say that San Francisco was considered something of a haven for LGBTQ+ people in the United States, particularly gay men. An estimated 25% of the city’s population was LGBT. That didn’t change the laws of the country, though, and being openly gay in San Francisco still led to being arrested, losing your job, etc — it just meant there was a louder, larger community that had your back if those things happened. Which, of course, meant that there had been more than a couple mostly peaceful conflicts between the police and the queer community of San Francisco.
In 1972, Harvey Milk moved to San Francisco and opened Castro Camera, and — with political expertise and a lot of charisma — quickly became one of the leaders of the gay community of the city, which was centered in the Castro District (and I believe still is). In that position, Milk ultimately made himself very unpopular with the police — after one incident on Labor Day in 1974 where police beat dozens of gay men on Castro Street, and arrested 14 of them for “obstructing the sidewalk”, Milk hit them with a lawsuit for $1.375 million. In 1977, Milk won an election to the city Board of Supervisors (making him the first openly gay person elected to any office in the United States, yes, and I’d focus on that more but really it needs its own post.)
Also on the Board of Supervisors was Dan White — a former police officer who now owned a restaurant. He was a conservative in a city that was turning more and more liberal, and his restaurant was having serious financial problems. He resigned on November 10, 1978. Shortly after that, he met with the Board of Realtors and the Police Officers’ Association — both organizations encouraged him to ask for his position back, correctly realizing that his vote was essential in preventing more liberal policies that they opposed from being implemented in the city. So White asked for his position back — the liberals on the Board of Supervisors did not want him to get his position back. Milk and Supervisor Carol Ruth Silver led them in encouraging Mayor George Moscone not to reinstate White. And ultimately, on November 26, Moscone announced that he had agreed not to reinstate White. On November 27, White broke into the city hall through a basement window, went into the Mayor’s office, argued with him and then shot him three times — twice in the head. He then went to his former office, called for Milk to join him there, and shot Milk four times — twice in the head. Their bodies were found by city supervisor Dianne Feinstein.
White was arrested, obviously, for the double homicide. The prosecutor, Thomas Newman, sought charges for first degree murder with special circumstances, so he could ask for the death penalty. Meanwhile the San Francisco police and fire departments raised $100,000 for White’s defense, and they attended the trial wearing shirts that said “Free Dan”. As this was going on, police attacks against the gay community began to gain momentum. In March of 1979, drunk off-duty members of the police squad attacked a lesbian bar called Peg’s Place in the Richmond District of San Francisco. Tensions between the city’s LGBTQ+ community and the police had never been higher.
The defense attorney, Douglas Schmidt, played a recording of Dan’s confession to the jury where he ranted about the amount of pressure he was under — which some members of jury actually cried after hearing — and had a psychiatrist stated that White had diminished capacity due to a poor mental state. The evidence of this poor mental state was the amount of junk food he’d been eating — something which came to be known as the “Twinkie defense”. The jury found White guilty of voluntary manslaughter, and was sentenced to seven years and eight months in prison with the possibility of early release.
News of the verdict reached the Castro Distract. Activist Cleve Jones announced the news to a crowd of about 500 people, saying “Today, Dan White was essentially patted on the back. He was convicted of manslaughter—what you get for hit and run. We all know this violence has touched all of us. It was not manslaughter. I was there that day at City Hall. I saw what the violence did. It was not manslaughter, it was murder.” The people there were fairly convinced that the prosecution and the police had worked together to ensure White would not have a severe sentence (although Newman denied this until his death and no proof has ever come to light of such a conspiracy.)
The crowd started marching, shouting “Out of the bars and into the streets” down Castro Street. Each time they passed a bar, people answered the call. They circled through the district until the crowd had roughly tripled in size — and then they started towards city hall. By the time they got there, the crowd was about 5,000 people. There were only a handful of police and they had not dealt with a crowd this large and angry before — they attempted to hold the mob back but to no avail. The crowd started vandalizing city hall, tearing gilded ornamental work off of the iron gates of the building and using them to bust open windows. Some activists attempted to calm things, including Milk’s longtime partner Joseph Scott Smith.
Police reinforcements arrived, attacking the crowd with nightsticks. (Absolutely exactly the wrong thing to do. This is ten years after Stonewall, they really should have known better.) The crowd started setting police cars on fire — ultimately, thirteen police cars and eight other vehicles would be set ablaze. As the last of the police cars was set on fire, the man who did it told a reporter on the scene “make sure you put in the paper that I ate too many Twinkies.”
These burning cars became such an iconic symbol, that the punk rock band Dead Kennedys used a photograph of a burning police car from that night as the album cover of their debut album Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables in 1980. Members of the crowd also stole tear gas cannisters from these police vehicles, and threw them at the police. The crowd pulled down the cables for the trolleys, disabling them.
Inside city hall, Police Chief Charles Gain — at that moment the most gay friendly police chief in the city’s history (and one of the most hated by his subordinates) ordered his men to stand their ground but not to attack the crowd. Meanwhile, Mayor Dianne Feinstein and Supervisor Carol Ann Silver attempted to calm down the crowd by sympathizing with them — Silver even stated “Dan White has gotten away with murder. It’s as simple as that.” Some sort of object, can’t find good records as it what it was, got thrown at Silver, injuring her.
After three hours of rioting, the police launched a full offensive — their badges covered with black tape to hide their identities (sound familiar?), particularly as they were not following orders. They also used tear gas — but the rioters fought back, using anything they could get their hands on as a weapon, including pieces they tore off of city buses and pieces of asphalt they ripped out of the street itself. Nevertheless, the crowd did eventually disperse.
And then the police defied their orders from Chief Gain and attacked the Castro District in retaliation — they began at a bar called the Elephant Walk, which they vandalized — breaking windows and beating the patrons inside. After fifteen minutes, they left the bar and began indiscriminately attacking people in the streets of the district. This carried on for two hours before Chief Gain heard about it and went to the Elephant Walk. Upon seeing the damage, he immediately ordered the police to withdraw.
Mike Weiss — a freelance reporter who had been covering the trial of Dan White and would publish the book Double Play: The San Francisco City Hall Killings in 1984 — stated that he encountered a couple of police officers at a bar later that night, drinking and laughing. One officer reportedly told him, “We were at City Hall the day the killings happened and were smiling then. We were there tonight and we’re still smiling.” Now, it’s true that Weiss is the only source for this, but he did win a Pulitzer for his coverage of the Baltimore riot in 1968 so he does have some credibility.
The rioting caused hundreds of thousands of dollars of property damage in just a few hours. Adjusted for inflation it’s estimated this damage would have been over a million dollars were it to happen today — making this, as far as I know, the most expensive riot in queer history. Certainly putting the Stonewall Riots to shame. Aside from the property damage, 140 protesters were injured — with 100 of those needing to be hospitalized — as well as about 61 police officers.
The next day, the leaders of the gay community in San Francisco held a press conference. The media was expecting that these officials would condemn the violence and apologize. Instead, Harry Britt, who had replaced Milk as city supervisor for the Castro district, issued this statement: “Harvey Milk’s people do not have anything to apologize for. Now the society is going to have to deal with us not as nice little fairies who have hairdressing salons, but as people capable of violence. We’re not going to put up with Dan Whites anymore.” They made it abundantly clear to the people of the Castro that no one was ever to apologize for the riot at all. As of this day, no one has — of course, neither have the police.
That night, an estimated 20,000 people rallied in the Castro District. May 22 was Milk’s birthday, so the rally had been planned long before the rioting. The rally managed to stay peaceful, although the entire city was tense. If anything, Cleve Jones can be credited with keeping it that way — laying out contingency plans, coordinating with Chief Gain, and having 300 monitors to keep an eye on the crowd. However, the point of the rally originally had been to have a celebration of Milk’s life and that had not changed. Despite the underlying anger, there was still plenty of dancing and partying in the streets.
A grand jury was convened to determine who had ordered the attack on the Elephant Walk — but there was no real evidence, so it remains a mystery. No officers ever faced consequences for the police action. With Feinstein looking to win a full term election as mayor, she spent a lot of money campaigning in the Castro district — courting the still politically powerful gay community. Her primary promise to them was to appoint more gay people into public offices. After her election, she kept this promise — even replacing Chief Gain with the openly gay Cornelius Murphy. Murphy overturned some of Gain’s less popular policies (namely, the colors that police cars were painted) which won him some popularity with the police force, but insisted on progressive policies regarding the gay community. By the following year, one out of every seven new police recruits in San Francisco was gay or lesbian.
The riots had received national attention and, if anything, stressed the need for minorities to be represented in government. Gay and lesbian people began to be elected or appointed to public office all over the country. The legacy of those riots lasted for decades. In 2009, fearful of what the verdict might be, as the California Supreme Court deliberated on the case of Strauss v. Horton, the then Mayor of San Francisco Gavin Newsom asked the court not to announce their decision on May 21. Although the court actually decided in favor of LGBTQ+ rights, they still agreed not to publicly announce their decision on the 30th anniversary of the riots, waiting until May 26.
Unfortunately, of all the things that have changed in the 41 years since the White Night Riots, police brutality in the United States is really not one of them. This week we’ve seen historic protests over this issue — and a lot of controversy about riots. We cannot, as a community, forget where we’ve come from. I’m not saying we all need to go out and start riots right now, but I am saying that our community already fought this battle with decades of rioting. There are people still fighting this battle, people our community has left behind. We need to support them now.
June 24 marks a very somber day in the history of LGBTQ+ Americans — it is the anniversary of the Upstairs Lounge fire, an arson attack that occurred in 1973 and which was the deadliest attack on a U.S. gay bar until 2016.
The Upstairs Lounge was on the second floor of the three story building at 141 Chartres Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans. It was the final night of Pride weekend and, at the time of the attack, some 60 people were still inside the Upstairs Lounge listening to the piano music of David Gary at an event hosted by the Metropolitan Community Church. At 7:56 pm, the buzzer on the front door went off. Luther Boggs went to answer the door, only to find the front stairwell completely aflame. Buddy Ramussen, an Air Force veteran and the bartender there that night, led twenty people out the back exit to the roof of a neighboring building where they could escape. However, somehow, their escape route locked behind them trapping everyone else inside. A handful tried to escape by squeezing out of the barred windows. MCC Reverend Bill Larson died clinging to those bars, and his body was visible from the street below for hours afterwards. The MCC’s assistant pastor Duane George “Mitch” Mitchell had escaped, but returned to try to rescue his boyfriend Louis Horace Broussard — they died holding onto each other. Firefighters had difficulty reaching the scene because of pedestrians and car traffic. One fire truck crashed into a taxi. Once they arrived, they quickly brought the fire under control quickly. 28 people died in the fire, one died enroute to the hospital, and three more died later due to injuries sustained in the blaze. Fifteen were injured but survived. The only suspect in the arson attack was a man named Rodger Dale Nunez, who had been kicked out of the bar earlier in the night for fighting with a customer. A witness claimed to have seen him in the area of the bar twenty minutes before the fire, but police determined that the witness was unreliable. Nunez also suffered from mental illness, and was placed in psychiatric custody after his arrest. He escaped, however, and was never picked up by police again despite being quite visible in the French Quarter. A friend later told investigators that Nunez confessed to the arson at least four times, before taking his own life in November of 1974. Despite the magnitude of the attack, it was all but ignored. The media made no mention of the LGBT status of the victims, and neither the city nor state government ever made a statement on the attack — despite having declared days of mourning for smaller tragedies. Worse still, the victims — and many of the survivors — had been outed. Churches refused to have funerals, some of the survivors lost their jobs. Some of the victims’ families refused to claim the bodies. On June 25, Father Bill Richardson of St. George’s Episcopal Church held a small, private prayer service for the victims — he was the only member of the city’s clergy who was willing to do so. 80 people attended the service, and he received over 100 complaints about it from parishioners and was officially rebuked by his superior in the church.
On July 1, MCC founder Troy Perry — who flew from L.A. — held a memorial service for the victims. Reporters waited outside, eager to expose the grieving and mostly closeted members LGBTQ+ community of New Orleans to the public. Although a side exit was offered, none took that option. Every person who attended the service exited together in a show of solidarity. In 2003, the city of New Orleans installed a (small) plaque in the sidewalk at the location of the fire to memorialize the victims. Three of those victims — white males — were never identified. The burial costs of these three were paid for anonymously, and they were buried along with Ferris LeBlanc in a mass grave in a cemetery reserved for the poor. LeBlanc’s immediate family only learned of his death in 2015. The cemetery he is buried in is massive and unkept and there is not a map, so his family has yet to see his grave.